See where The Great American Road Trip 7-2010 has been in a larger map.
The Great American Road Trip
Mark Twain, who captured America like no other American writer, wandered the globe and lived abroad nearly as many years as he lived in the United States. As a matter of fact many of his most American books were penned while he luxuriated in villas in the Italian countryside.
He wrote follow-ups to his popular Tom Sawyer novel from a villa near Florence while fiddling with what was to become the final of the four masterworks of the Mississippi River, sometimes known as “The Tragedie” of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Of course I could have chosen to talk about his memoir of Life on the Mississippi or Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, all memoirs to some extent of his years in Hannibal, Missouri, but being a contrarian, I wanted to read the lesser-known book as a salute to the state of Missouri.
Pudd’nhead Wilson made quite a journey itself, starting as a farce about conjoined twins, based on a pair of Italian sideshow noblemen that drew crowds in the nineteenth century Europe. However, by the time Twain finished his story, his interest had drawn elsewhere, the story had perhaps been influenced by his wife’s influence, and the twins, still noble, were no longer conjoined. The subsequent editing tends to rather sloppy and confusingly show glimpses of the previous “Siamese” twins.
As usual, Twain presents the accents and mores of his home town and the state of Missouri faithfully, although he was living in 1893 in a villa in Florence and had been for many years when he wrote this book. This is a book of memory. He is recalling the bad old days (1830) when a person like Roxy, the story’s main character, could be sold “down the river” because she is 1/16 black. “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro.”
Even This long after the Civil War, such a strong condemnation of slavery sold more copies of Twain’s books in the north than in the South. He leaves no doubts of his feelings, not only about slavery but about the damage the aristocracy of the South wrought on the white population as well as the black.
Echoing his earlier story, The Prince and the Pauper, he switches two children but in this case, one is white and one is black (but in this case 1/32nd black, which serves just as well) and proving Twain is always up to date, he uses the latest science, in this case finger printing, to solve both a murder and the swapped-at-birth cases.
Despite the sloppiness in converting the Italian twins from conjoined to merely noble, this story deserves more attention than it generally gets. For one thing, Twain has created a really interesting female character for a change in Roxy. And if his cynicism towards American’s racial attitudes began to emerge in Huck Finn, it came to full flame in Pudd’nhead Wilson. See how he weaves a detective story, social satire, Americana and vintage Twain into a story that makes a good addition to the traveler’s road trip history library.
What is your favorite Mark Twain novel? Why do you think this one never gained the popularity of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn?